None of us wants to think of ourselves as defensive, or believe that we are acting defensively, but the truth is sometimes we are. The trick is to manage ourselves and make sure sometimes doesn’t become often. And if you’re a leader of any kind and you plan to move up, then you cannot afford to be defensive — or be perceived as being defensive — ever.
Leaders Who are Defensive Risk Not Moving Up
A client organization recently asked my company to take on a few new coaching clients at the senior director level — leaders who are in the pipeline to be VPs. Two of those potential coaching clients, while having steadily moved up because of their talent and skills in getting the job done with and through others, both had one big drawback – they frequently got on the defensive when their ideas or methods were challenged and when leadership thought that they could have finished up important projects faster and with fewer hiccups.
This defensiveness, I was told, is the one behavior that’s been keeping the two of them from moving up. And unless they turn things around, a VP spot in that company just won’t happen for them.
A defensive behavior sometimes happens so quickly that we don’t even realize we’ve engaged in one. These behaviors arise when we feel under attack, warranted or not, and we defend ourselves with an excuse or an explanation to set things right. With a defensive posture situations are rarely resolved. Instead they escalate. And defensive responses can give the impression that you’re not taking responsibility.
3 Common Types of Defensive Responses — And What to Do Instead
1. “It’s not my fault.” You’re in a meeting with leaders a level or more above you. Your presentation is missing key data and it’s noticed and commented on. You respond with: “If I’d had a realistic timeline, I would’ve included that information in this presentation.” Or: “They continually put us off every time I asked for information and that’s why this isn’t where it needs to be.” In an attempt to show that under different circumstances you would have had a better result, these disclaimers play to the blame game, give the impression that you’re not taking responsibility, and could lessen others’ opinions of you.
What to do instead: Answer with an acknowledgement and next steps. You can mention that you didn’t get the information you needed, but state it as a fact, not as blame. “Yes, that key data is missing. X wasn’t able to get it to us in time. I’ll make sure you have a heads up on issues like this in the future. And, I’ll get with X right after this meeting and get you what you need.”
2. “I’ll show you how right I am.” You have a proposal and it’s been challenged. In your own defense, you attempt to show the logic of your reasoning. You continue presenting the same rationale assuming that if you say it enough, they’ll see the light. “As I’ve explained, you need to let us do it this way if this is the result that you want.” “This is the only way this problem can be resolved. Let me reiterate why it’s the right way to go.”
What to do instead: When challenged, rather than defend with logic, ask a question to find out why they may be seeing things differently than you are. “What are you main concerns?” “What would you like us to add here to be sure your needs are met?”
3. “I didn’t know.” “No one told me about this. If they had, I would have put a plan together.” “I had no way of knowing that this problem would occur.” These responses could cause you to sound like someone who doesn’t think ahead and isn’t proactive enough to see when problems are likely to occur. But how you are then perceived depends on your tone of voice. If it’s accusatory of others, then you’ll come across as defensive.
What to do instead: Change your wording slightly and be aware of your tone of voice. Talk in a factual, calm manner, and indicate action toward remedying the issue. All of this can take the perception of blame and accusation out of your response. “I wasn’t aware that this problem could occur. I will look into the matter as soon as we’re done here and get going on the fix right away.”
There will always be times when we feel we need to defend ourselves. To avoid future situations like the ones above that are likely to put you on the defensive, start anticipating the problems and be proactive in getting what you need from others.
When you’ve hit a wall and others aren’t giving you what you need, communicate with those who are directly affected and be ready to discuss what you’ve already done to right the situation. Remember, leadership doesn’t care why you didn’t get what you needed. They care that they didn’t get what they needed.
Question: Do you have any other tips for managing defensiveness? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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